Dylan Thomas was born in Swansea, Wales on 27 October 1914. No examination of his work can ignore the importance of his birthplace. Even his death in New York in 1953 is less a simple fact than an allegory of how far from home the poet had traveled. From this distance in time it is very easy to see that all his work is based on an assumption that Swansea and its surrounding green county is the center of the world, that all the poet saw and said resulted from the relation of his experience to the small miles of Wales in which he grew up.
No poet of our time lived more in the eye of the world than Thomas. His early recognition · he was famous in the little community of modern poets when he was nineteen · the accounts of his bohemian life-style, the impact of his work on critics and on other poets, all made him a public figure. At the time it seemed that readers waited for the small collections he published every few years as if starved of poetry. As his fame spread, Thomas was regarded as the very type of the romantic poet, wild, dissolute, inspired. This was not the complete truth, but when he died in 1953, tragically and sensationally after a bout of drinking, it was as if Dionysus had died again.
That was a long time ago. We ought to be able to look more objectively at the verse, to see it as it is presented to us in the Collected Poems (1952), to realize that it is the whole life's work. It should be possible to decide how much of Thomas' poetry has stood up against insidious time and against changing fashion in verse. We should, moreover, realize that the man's prose has grown in importance since his death, that it is easier to see him as a more interesting figure, more complex and complete, developing marvelous gifts of narrative and humor, than as a poet dead before his time. It has long been acknowledged that Thomas was a conscious artist, well aware of what he was doing, industrious, serious, and dedicated. His letters to his friend Vernon Watkins, particularly the earlier ones, are clear proof of how seriously he took his craft. To read through the Collected Poems is to experience a continuous development and refining of Thomas' technical skills from the rather heavy iambic early verse through the conscious experiments of his middle period to the extraordinary mastery of his late poems. The truth is that Thomas was always an artist, not only aware of what he was doing but delighting in it. He would have agreed with William Butler Yeats that there is no art without toil.
He realized early that he could write, and he was serious about the possession of such a gift. His father, David John Thomas, was an English master at the local grammar school, a man of taste and intelligence, widely read. Although he came from a Welsh-speaking background, he made his home one in which English was the sole language and its literature valued above all others. A fine reader, he introduced his son to the great poets at an early age. His example, together with the splendid voice he passed on to Dylan, was to result in the extraordinary public readings that made Thomas' work familiar to many people who would normally not have been interested in poetry. D. J. Thomas came of a family famous in South Wales. His uncle, William Thomas, had been a prime mover in the Unitarian movement in western Wales and had been politically active in the unrest between landlords and tenants in the years after 1867. He was, moreover, a good poet in the Welsh language, using the bardic title of Gwilym Marles.
It was a proud inheritance, and D. J. Thomas paid tribute to Gwilym Marles when he gave his son the middle name of Marlais. Yet he tried to ensure that any trace of Welsh language influence was erased when he insisted his two children have elocution lessons. Thomas grew up without the distinctive Swansea accent. He spoke an English untouched by any regional tinge.
Similarly, he remained unaware of much of what was happening to his country outside his immediate experience. It was a bad time for Wales, and other young poets · a little older than Thomas, it is true · were aware of the despair of the miners, of ruinous unemployment, and wrote about these subjects. He seemed sublimely uninterested in politics. If he knew no Welsh, he had a traditional Welsh attitude toward poetry. It must be rich in sound, it must be beautifully crafted, it must be glorious and as far as possible immortal. He prepared himself to write such poetry. His verse had been influenced, too, by the great English poets particularly the romantics. The modern poets he read were those whose work his father possessed, Walter de la Mare, John Masefield, the Georgians. From his wide reading he had already mastered a formidable technique, but it was a technique quite unlike that of his contemporaries. David Daiches, in his essay on Thomas in Dylan Thomas: A Collection of Critical Essays writes: "No modern poet in English has had a keener sense of form or has handled stanza and verse-paragraphs · whether traditional or original · with more deliberate cunning." This is an indication of the individuality of Thomas' voice and his technique. Of all the poets of his generation, he alone seemed to have been uninfluenced by the work of T. S. Eliot , then preeminent in English poetry. For Thomas it was as if Eliot had never written. We know from his letters, however, that the younger poet was very well aware of Eliot's, work and it is possible that he wrote differently because he knew his own gifts well, realized that he would travel in other directions.
The unusual thing is that Thomas came to this knowledge while still very young. The Collected Poems of 1952, prepared by Thomas himself contains a total of ninety poems. When the poet's friend Dr. Daniel Jones published his edition of The Poems in 1971, he included many more poems; even so he was at pains to state that this was still a selection. Most of these additional poems were written while Thomas was yet a schoolboy but so were many of the poems Thomas selected for the collection he chose himself.
Between the years 1930 and 1934, that is between the ages of fifteen and nineteen, Thomas wrote "at least four times more poetry than in the remaining nineteen years of his life" (The Poems, introduction p. xvi) according to Dr. Jones. Thomas' published Notebooks offer convincing evidence of his astonishing early industry, as well as showing how this wealth of early work was revised, sometimes only very slightly revised, to become the poems from which the poet formed his successive books. Although he did write new poems for each new book, a surprising number were rescued from the poems of his adolescence.
It is obvious then that the majority of the poems remain the work of a very young man, a provincial young man untouched by London literary society or the discipline of a university. In a sense, despite the influence of his father, Thomas was an autodidact unaware of the very latest in poetical fashions. He had trained himself in the orthodox metrical forms of English verse and was far away from the current new poets, W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and C. Day-Lewis. Working almost alone in Swansea · for he did not meet Watkins, perhaps the most helpful of his friends until after the publication of Eighteen Poems in 1934 · his most interesting subject matter was himself. So that when he began to publish, both his matter and his manner, traditional though they were, seemed astonishingly new and very exciting.
Certainly Eighteen Poems was received with unusual attention. "I was in London with him," wrote Glyn Jones in The Dragon Has Two Tongues (p. 183) "soon after his book appeared . . . and it was a delight to me to witness the excitement with which the book and its author were received." Jones had very early recognized the unique quality of the poetry and remains one of the most acute and objective of Thomas admirers.
It is as well to consider here, since we have stressed that much of Thomas' verse is orthodox and traditional, just what was unique in the work of the new arrival. First there is the important influence of Thomas environment. Hard though D. J. Thomas fought to give his son the sense of an English language culture, the boy was exposed every day of his formative years to an atmosphere very largely based on Welsh values and mores. He would have heard the language even, since it was more commonly spoken in Swansea during his boyhood than it is today, and in the country districts to the west of the town it was very largely the first language. This means that the English Thomas heard in the streets and classrooms, even that he would use when with his friends, was in a sense a transitional language, its syntax and its rhythms very slightly askew when compared to the language of Englishmen. The poet's usage thus acquires a kind of exotic strangeness and power, adding to his awareness of language · in Thomas' case an obsession with language that might have been the most obvious facet of his poetry. "I wanted to write poetry in the beginning," wrote Thomas in 1951, in reply to a students questions "because I had fallen in love with words" (Modern Poets on Modern Poetry p. 195). He was never to fall out of love with them.
And if his language was exotically rich and musical when we think of the thin, political, poetry popular at the time, then its form too was unusual, again for what we might think of as Welsh reasons. Welsh poetry is complex and difficult in form, its poets skilled in the craft to a high degree, the traditional meters demanding long training. I do not suggest that Thomas knew very much about the forms of Welsh language poetry, despite efforts by a few critics to show a deliberate use of some of the constructions, but he grew up in a community in which formal poetry · the belief that poems must be well made · was universal. This is a not an unusual circumstance among poets from Celtic countries. "Irish poets learn your trade / Sing whatever is well mate" ("Under Ben Bulben" V) admonished Yeats. Certainly Scottish, Irish, and Welsh poets seem for these reasons to use poetic form and language sufficiently unlike that of their English contemporaries to make their work recognizably Celtic. It is not entirely fanciful to suggest that Thomas' mastery of intricate forms had something to to with his nationality and his background.
So his work was significantly novel in both word and form. It is true that there were poets writing at that time who were influenced by the current interest in surrealism; despite superficial similarities · the use of striking imagery is an example · Thomas' extreme control is enough to show that he has no place in such a group. Nor was his adolescent interest in himself, and in particular in his own sexuality, a common subject for verse in 1934. This was a per-od in which many young writers were greatly concerned with social and political themes. In prose and verse many of them were trying to analyze the causes of great political upheaval in Europe, and to warn about the war that they saw as inevitable. Thomas seemed untouched by this concern just as he was not influenced by savage unemployment and poverty in his own country. And if these young people, some of whom were to go on to fight in the Spanish Civil War in a few years time, seemed to represent that call for individual and political freedom which had been so potent a charge in the early nineteenth century to poets like William Blake and William Wordsworth to Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, then Thomas perhaps represented the viewpoint of even younger poets who had not outgrown the natural interest in self shown not only in budding lyrical poets but in all normal adolescents. We have to remember just how young Thomas was at this time and to recall moreover just how much younger he had been when he had written the work in Eighteen Poems. Whatever the reasons, young poets found his work exciting and in a sense liberating. His work influenced that of poets in England and America to an extraordinary extent, as a reading of almost any anthology of poetry of the time will show. In retrospect it seems that he changed the direction of contemporary English poetry with his first book, although its real virtues were not always recognized.
In addition to all these factors, Thomas came of families long settled in the Swansea and Carmarthenshire areas. He had a familiar age-old environment of sea and shore and surrounding hills in which to place his work. His very provincialism, far from being a handicap, gave him safety and strength. His is a recognizable country. His advantages were formidable.
All this is more easily seen from a reading of The Collected Poems than from a study of the work in his first book alone. The poems in Eighteen Poems, though are still exciting enough to help us understand some of the furor they caused in the small world of poets and a few of them remain among the best that Thomas ever wrote.
An old poet has told me how, when he was an undergraduate, he and his friends would walk the streets chanting the poems of Algernon Charles Swinburne, and a similar, almost mesmeric, incantatory quality is felt when one reads these early poems of Thomas. I, as a boy of thirteen, read "The force that through the green fuse drives the flower" in an anthology and could not believe that it was a poem. It seemed like something alive and physical, too vital for the page to contain. It could well be that such an immediate effect, a feeling that the words contained something beyond meaning and appealing with enormous power to the senses, is not only the first quality of Thomas' early verse, but its most permanent quality still to be felt. Yet there was, too, a certain confidence in the statement of the poetry, something in addition to the music and the mystery, which persuaded many of us that Thomas was saying something important. How strong some of the opening lines still seem: "I see the boys of summer in their ruin"; "A process in the weather of the heart / Turns damp to try"; "Where once the waters of your face / Spun to my screws." The poetry was obscure, but with a peculiar kind of obscurity. John Bayley has pointed out ("Chains and the Poet," New Critical Essays, p. 57) that we were hearing once again "the Bards voice" and that even if the words seem obscure the message is very simple. "Thomas," wrote Bayley, "was the first great and evident talent of the modern movement . . . to concentrate on what it felt like to be himself to make his poetry the feeling of his being."
But no poet can be entirely absorbed in self. We know from the evidence of his friends in the Swansea of his youth that Thomas was observant, fond of company, funny. His later stories and broadcasts demonstrate very clearly that little went by his keen and tolerant eye, so it is fair to assume that his adolescent concern with himself was abnormal only in that it formed the matter for much of his poetry that he was very much aware of the external world and his place in it. Like other intelligent young people he was concerned with the great imponderables, time, sex, life, religion. His poetry could be said to attempt to balance such forces within himself and in the world in which he lived.
That effort is serious and arduous. Early critics who felt that Thomas worked thoughtlessly and without effort saw neither the skill for so young a man nor the struggle throughout poem after poem to find a conclusion that satisfied his doubts. He certainly knew what he was doing. In many of his poems he uses man as a microcosm and himself as a mirror of the huge and inexplicable world in order to assert some order over chaos. It is not mere rhetoric that he intends (nor, it seems to me, did he ever intent mere rhetoric) when he ends a superbly serious poem, "If I were tickled by the rub of love," with a simple declaration · "Man be my metaphor." It is a truth he remained loyal to throughout his career. If we remember this, some of the difficulties of the work in Eighteen Poems seem less perplexing when we read:
Light breaks where no sun shines;
Where no sea runs, the waters of the heart
Push in their tides;
("Light breaks where no sun shines")
or even more illuminating these lines from the same poem:
Dawn breaks behind the eyes;
From poles of skull and toe the windy blood
Slides like a sea.
It is not, however simply that Thomas saw himself as the world or the world as himself; he saw himself as being subject to the same forces as the world and his effort is to understand those forces and to see how they affect him. Much of his poetry then is a journey in self-discovery. Those strong confident lines are also paths of doubt and uncertainty and the poem was successful only when he had successfully negotiated a way to a conclusion the poem had found for him. Much of the supposed obscurity of the early poetry is the result of the division between the confidence of the technique and the uncertainty · more correctly the innocence · of the thought. But we can certainly understand more readily now just why these poems use so many images of blood and body. They are not merely images, they form the subject matter of Thomas first public utterances.
And when the poem works it is very successful. Such an example would be "The force that through the green fuse drives the flower" in which everything combines to produce a remarkable unity. Here Thomas makes his complete identification with the natural world even more apparent than in other poems. It is not merely an identification with the external world that Thomas understands; it is an interrelationship so firm that its very statement is the poem. The poem opens with something that is almost a definition of the life force, in that the poet shows us how it affects both the flower representative of external life and himself:
The force that through the green fuse drives the
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
He shows us then his place in the natural world. It is precisely that of every other living thing subject to growth and decay. He links his youth to that of the flower by his use of the common adjective "green"; he anticipates the hardening of age by aligning himself with "the roots of trees." But he does not understand the force he is considering; in fact he is unable to explain to the rose marred by winter that he is subject to the same fate:
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.
The next two stanzas follow a repetitive pattern insisting not only on the poets relationship with the natural world and its laws ·
The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood;
but on his inability to explain the nature of relentless time of inevitable decay. He is "dumb" for these purposes; not only is he unable to explain to the dying rose the reason for its death he is identically powerless to explain it to himself:
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.
Water and blood the springing liquids of external and internal worlds both are ruled by the same inexplicable forces.
Paradoxically, it is the realization of his inability to to more than recognize the intricate relations of natural things ruled by time to be unable to explain any more than this which gives power and assurance to the poem qualities reinforced by the relentless drive of the rhythm by the repetition of the formal pattern and by the separated coupled with which he ends the poem. This last piece of virtuosity also brings out clearly the hidden pun the poet intends when he uses "dumb" to describe his helplessness. In it he ironically accuses himself of being stupid when he fails to persuade the dead lover of the universality of death:
And I am dumb to tell the lovers tomb
How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm.
All in all, this is a most subtle and engaging poem well worth lengthy study. Even in small matters, as in the manner the poem is rounded off by the final image of the "crooked" worm echoing that of the "crooked" rose · and both possibly, reminding us of William Blakes "sick rose" · the poem is the work of a young man of great ability, writing at the top of his form.
It is this topic of death and decay that is most frequently examined in the first poems, and the universality of the subject in some measure helps to disguise the extreme introspection of much of the work. Yet it is clear that in all these poems, Thomas is firmly at the center of his world, relying almost entirely on his own sense perceptions. He is hardly ever objective in the ordinary meaning of the word, his thought and his emotion seeming to be an amalgam of these qualities, almost a new and highly individual power. His poems arise as he tells us straight out of his senses · "I see the boys of summer" · and we are tempted to think that without that first sight the boys would not have existed at all, nor the poem either. As it is they can go on living in thoughtless and careless folly blind to their certain ruin:
I see the boys of summer in their ruin
Lay the gold tithings barren,
Setting no store by harvest freeze the soils;
There in their heat the winter floods
Of frozen loves they fetch their girls,
And drown the cargoed apples in their tides.
But not all the first poems can be so classified. "Especially when the October wind" is made more recognizably from the visible world in and about Swansea (and is probably the first of several poems written in succeeding October months when the poet celebrated his birthday) and by some process of relation, from the act of writing poems. "Where once the waters of your face" also seems a more direct and external poem than most. What difficulties exist in the reading of this poem ease when it is realized that we are listening to a boat (or perhaps the owner of a boat) speaking to the ghost of a water that has dried up.
Where once the waters of your face
Spun to my screws, your dry ghost blows,
The dead turns up its eye;
Here, too, we are given such a wealth of sea and tidal images that we are reminded that Thomas lived most of his life by the sea was increasingly influenced by seascape in his work. It is in this poem that we find the poet perhaps for the first time offering some measure of protection against time and dissolution, even if it is to a dry pool:
There shall be corals in your beds,
There shall be serpents in your tides,
Till all our sea-faiths die.
I have suggested that despite the energy and strength of the rhythms of these poems, they are sometimes less than sensitive, sometimes monotonous and heavy, and I believe this to be true. Yet the best, and the best made (for these are nearly always identical with Thomas), are free of this charge, and an examination of his rhymes would show how cleverly he avoids any suggestion of monotony here. His use of half-rhyme and false rhyme, easily to be seen in the lines already quoted, will show how successful he was. Admirable, too, is his strict search for accuracy; one can only be delighted by the combination of "dry" and "ghost", for instance, in "Where once the waters of your face."
All this meant that Thomas had established at once an easily recognized style and a highly individual voice, strange, exciting, and genuinely poetic. The poems to be found in Twenty-five Poems (1936) support and confirm the nature of his gifts, although there are some that seem simpler and more direct and a few that suggest a sadder and less convinced poet. Examples of the first kind are "This bread I break," "Ears in the turrets hear," "The hand that signed the paper," "Should lanterns shine," "I have longed to move away," and "And death shall have no dominion." They form no small proportion of the work, and while a few of them are new, some are poems that Thomas had rejected for his first collection and revised for this later publication. The poems of melancholy can be represented by the beautiful "Out of the sighs" with its wavering cadences, its slow melody:
Out of the sighs a little comes,
But not of grief, for I have knocked down that
Before the agony; the spirit grows,
Forgets and cries;
A little comes, is tasted and found good;
All could not disappoint;
There must, be praised, some certainty
If not of loving well, then not,
And that is true after perpetual defeat.
Perhaps not sufficient attention has been paid to this poem, one of the few pieces that contains none of the famous Thomas images, indeed hardly any images at all yet no other poet could have written it.
There are more typical poems, some of them going over old ground looking once again at the apparent division of flesh and soul, exhibiting the presence of death in the newborn:
I, in my intricate image, stride on two levels
Forged in man's minerals, the brassy orator
Laying my ghost in metal,
The scales of this twin world treat on the double,
My half ghost in armour hold hard in death's
To my man-iron sidle.
Beginning with doom in the bulb the spring
unravels. . . .
("I, in my intricate image")
And there are a few poems so frankly obscure ("Now," "How soon the servant sun,") that they are almost jokes. I do not pretend to understand them at all.
But the most important and substantial work of this period are the ten religious stanzas called "Altarwise by owl-light." Written between December 1935 and the summer of 1936, these poems, or rather this poem (since I agree with Dr. Jones that this is a single poem with ten sonnet-like stanzas [The Poems, p. 262]), is something of a watershed in Thomas' work. It is his longest piece up to this time and also the most compressed and the most highly metaphorical. It has been the subject of controversy and explication since it first appeared as a whole in 1936, and opinion has ranged from outright dismissal to prolonged and complex analysis such as that by Elder Olson (The Poetry of Dylan Thomas, pp. 63-87). Experts are even divided about how it should be read, some of them (for example Marshall W. Stearns, "Unsex the Skeleton," Transformation 3, 1946) convinced that it is a series of separate sonnets despite Thomas' own statement that "this poem is a particular incident in a particular adventure" (Sunday Times, September 1936). Obscure it certainly is, compressed it certainly is. Afterwards, as if he had gone as far as he wished in those directions, Thomas verse became more free, its music more varied and lyrical.
"We were both religious poets," wrote Watkins (Letters to Vernon Watkins p. 17), and there is enough proof of this statement throughout the work of both poets to sustain this assertion. In Thomas' case we have the example of his early poem, "Before I knocked" in which he speaks for the Christchild even before His birth:
Before I knocked and flesh let enter,
With liquid hands tapped on the womb,
I who was shapeless as the water
That shaped the Jordan near my home
Was brother to Mnetha's daughter
And sister to the fathering worm.
And there are references to his continued absorption with religion right up to the final statement of his prefatory note to The Collected Poems. "These poems, with all their crudities, doubts, and confusions are written for the love of Man and in praise of God."
Thomas was twenty-one when he wrote "Altar-wise by owl-light." It represents a remarkably sustained and unified effort by the young poet. The poem came quickly to him, when one considers its density and complexity, but it is in no way an easy poem and remains one of the most challenging for the reader. Dr. Jones suggests that we should think of it as "absolute" poetry and that "comprehension is irrelevant" (The Poems, p. 263). Its difficulty he considers akin to that of a Bach fugue, and certainly the intricate weaving of images and the stern control of the sonnet form give this opinion some credence. But the poem is also made of words and possesses the properties of meaning.
What seems evident is that Thomas has taken for his subject the biblical themes of divine redemption and the reality of human sacrifice in an attempt to reconcile them. He has not confined his resources, his imagery, his information to the material of the Old and New Testaments; the poem is made of all his concerns and part of its difficulty is the wide range of Thomas' curious and personal learning and our difficulty in relating its disparate elements.
Each of the fourteen-line stanzas is organized into an octet and a sestet, the rhymes regular in pattern but not in sound, Thomas using the half-rhymes common with him:
Altarwise by owl-light in the half-way house
The gentleman lay graveward with his furies;
Abaddon in the hangnail cracked from Adam,
And from his fork, a dog among the fairies,
The atlas-eater with a jaw for news,
Bit out the mandrake with to-morrow's scream.
This is Thomas' version of the Nativity. It is no traditional Christmas scene, full of radiance and the light of promise. Christ's mortality is recognized as early as line 2. He is not surrounded by angels, but by furies. He is descended from Adam so already aware of sin. Abaddon is an unlikely figure here; he is the Angel of the Bottomless Pit, so the Christ-child born at dusk or owl-light is in dangerous and cast-out company from the time of his birth. His half-way house is already one of dreadful omen.
The second stanza continues the story, so it is possible to see that Thomas, wrestling with words and meaning, was on a journey of understanding as profound as any he had yet made. The child whose birth we attended in the first stanza is growing up:
Death is all metaphors shape in one history;
The child that sucketh long is shooting up
but we are told again of death toward the end of this stanza:
Hairs of your head, then said the hollow agent,
Are but the roots of nettles and of feathers
It is, too, a precise and horrible prophecy that Death ("the hollow agent," a skull) gives, since we are reminded that Christ will wear on his head a crown of thorns, or nettles.
I cannot pretend that it is other than very difficult to trace Thomas' thought through these extraordinarily powerful stanzas, but some of them treat the theme more directly than others. One such is the eighth stanza, which states its message with urgency:
This was the crucifixion on the mountain,
Time's nerve in vinegar the gallow grave
As tarred with blood as the bright thorns I wept;
The world's my wound, God's Mary in her grief,
Bent like three trees and bird-papped through her shift,
With pins for teardrops is the long wound's woman.
There is little of the extreme difficulty here of some of the other stanzas, since Thomas has followed closely the Gospel accounts of the Crucifixion. The images are those we would expect and at the same time reinforce and interrelate with each other: for example, Christ's tears are as savage as the thorns he wears, Mary's are as sharp and hard as pins. In her grief, Mary is bowed with that invisible weight exactly as the three trees are bent with the weight of three men. The stanza ends with Christ's statement that he is there to heal the world:
I, by the tree of thieves, all glory's sawbones,
Unsex the skeleton this mountain minute,
And by this blowclock witness of the sun
Suffer the heaven's children through my heartbeat.
He first unsexes "the skeleton" of Death, and then, as the blowclock witness (which I take to be a seeding dandelion, something to be found everywhere and whose seeds are carried everywhere by the wind, a symbol of delicate and silent power), measures that eclipse of the sun which accompanied the execution; Christ suffers "the heaven's children" through his "heartbeat." This is quite explicit. His suffering allows us into heaven; as his heart stops, we, "the heavens children" are promised immortality.
This stanza is for me, perhaps because it is the easiest to read, the high point of the poem. Stanza nine is extremely difficult and does not seem to continue, as the first eight do, a retelling and examination of events. But the final stanza, puzzling as it is in its confused syntax and images, ends on a note of hope, a prayer almost, in which Thomas asks that the garden, essentially the garden of Eden, which he has imagined sunken beneath the sea, shall rise again and, holding Adam's tree and Christ's tree allow the serpent to build "a nest of mercies" in "the rude, red tree," the bloodstained tree upon which Christ died.
This was the last poem in Twenty-five Poems. After this, Thomas was never again as fertile a poet. He was at this time living in dire poverty newly, married · he married Caitlin MacNamara in October 1937 · and despite the marvelous reception given to Twenty-five Poems, the book made little money. He began to work on the autobiographical stories later collected in The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (1940), in the hope that these would be more successful financially; but first he put together a volume of seven stories and sixteen new poems, called The Map of Love. This was a beautiful book, the stories a selection from Thomas' early prose and the poems including some most exciting work, all proving an even greater technical virtuosity, a number · for example, "After the funeral" · destined to be among his most famous. But ill-luck of the most unhappy kind attended the appearance of this book. Coming out at the end of August 1939 it was overwhelmed by the outbreak of World War II. Neither this nor The World I Breathe, a sizable collection of his poetry and prose that appeared in December of the same year and was his first American volume, did very much to relieve his financial straits.
The poems in The Map of Love do, however, mark a departure. Much more varied in theme and in style, they form a most interesting group. Still completely personal, they demonstrate a much greater interest in the external world. There are still poems that aroused the conservative critics to anger · particularly the opening poem "Because the pleasure-bird whistles" · and there are fine poems of the sort we have met before, like the splendid sonnet "When all my five and country senses see," but through them all there runs like a slender narrative thread a suggestion that the poet is no longer alone. "We lying by seasand" begins a poem of recognition that the poet cannot disturb the ravages of time, but it is also a poem of tender resignation, allowing that "wishes breed not" and that the poet and his companion should watch "yellow until the golden weather / Breaks." We are in fact being given a map of love. "If my head hurt a hair's foot" is a poem in which his unborn child speaks to its mother and the mother responds. "Twenty-four years" · another of the poems for his own birthday · is a celebration of his journey toward death ("sewing a shroud for a journey") and of his responsibilities as husband and father:
Dressed to die the sensual strut begun,
With my red veins full of money,
In the final direction of the elementary town
I advance for as long as forever is.
It seems that the poet has new directions to explore as well as a new viewpoint for his perennial themes. His love, too, extends outside his immediate concerns. The aunt with whom he had spent much time when a child, on the farm he was to immortalize in "Fern Hill," had died and he made for her the passionate elegy, "After the funeral."
The original version of this poem was written on 10 February 1933, a few days after his aunts death. Five years were to pass before Thomas went back to the poem and transformed it into the deeply felt elegy we now have. He is bitter and angry at what he feels to be an insufficient sorrow among the mourners, calling their conventional sadness
. . . mule praises brays,
Windshake of sailshaped ears, muffle-toed tap
Tap happily of one peg in the thick
Graves foot, blinds down the lids . . .
But he moves through his memories of the living Ann Jones into a noble eloquence, assuming for her a position as "Ann's bard on a raised hearth," calling all
The seas to service that her wood-tongued virtue
Babble like a bellbuoy over the hymning heads
Bow down the walls of the ferned and foxy woods
That her love sing and swing through a brown chapel.
And he offers her his continual service of love and eloquence until the dead return to life:
. . . until
The stuffed lung of the fox twitch and cry Love
And the strutting fern lay seeds on the black sill.
It is in these poems that we see for the first time a poet who is part of the outside world, offering as a partial solution to all the puzzles of life his personal love. In "After the funeral" for instance, we are shown a most careful ordering of the imagery, all the properties being those in and about the farm, the "stale fern," "the stuffed fox," the woods behind the house. Dr. Jones has told us that Thomas was not a ready observer of the world of nature, but that "if observation was directly relevant to his central interests, and only in that case, he could observe, and where the relevance was great, his observation could be keen" (My Friend Dylan Thomas, p. 56). The force of this remark can be appreciated when we remember that the flower in "The force that through the green fuse" remains an unnamed flower, but that in "After the funeral" a wealth of observed images are identified and ordered into powerful use. This ability was to be used more and more often, reinforcing Thomas' great auditory gifts. Thomas' changed status as a husband gave to him a wider range of subject and a greater involvement with other people.
This was part of a process that led to the comparative clarity and luminosity of the later poems. For a variety of reasons, possibly related to Thomas' work as a film-script writer and to the lack, until he removed to the Boathouse, Laugharne, in 1949 of a settled home, fewer poems were written. These years saw the growth of his reputation as a reader of poetry, not only his own. In February 1946 he published Deaths and Entrances, a tiny volume in size but great in achievement and influence. Here were such anthology pieces as "The Hunchback in the Park," which drew on his childhood memories of Cwmdonkin Park; the few war poems included in his work; two long narrative poems, "A Winter's Tale" and "Ballad of the Long-legged Bait"; poems of superb virtuosity like "There was a Saviour," in which a complex rhyme scheme is incredibly maintained; and amid a whole galaxy of wonderful things, "Poem in October" and "Fern Hill."
It has been fashionable to think that Thomas' early work is superior to these later poems. That must be mistaken opinion. That they are different in many respects, while retaining Thomas highly individual style, is fairly obvious. The main reason for this difference is one that the poems in Deaths and Entrances reflects. Previous to these poems, Thomas had been busily adapting the work contained in his early notebooks that series of exercise books now in the Lockwood Memorial Library in Buffalo. For seven years these books had held the material for his poetry, but in the spring of 1941 he sold them to a London dealer in rare books and manuscripts. "It would be hard" wrote Constantine FitzGibbon "to imagine a more significant gesture on Dylan's part a greater renunciation of his past than this. Those notebooks were his youth, those notebooks were his poems, those notebooks were Dylan the young poet. . . . The boy-poet, the Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive, had ceased to exist (The Life of Dylan Thomas p. 247)." What we have from this time on are the poems of the mature poet. They demonstrate his presence in wartime London, prey to "many married London's estranging grief," and his growing concern with other sufferers ("The conversation of prayer," "A refusal to mourn," "Ceremony after a fire raid"). Among such resonant elegies, the most personal is probably the best known, the touching poem to his father, "Do not go gentle into that good night." For many of his admirers, the new clarity of these poems, the recognizable scenes of his meditations, were increasing virtues.
By almost any standards the poems in Deaths and Entrances are remarkable. They display technical virtuosity of dazzling proportions, ranging from the strict villanelle in which Thomas contained his love for his father in "Do not go gentle," through the ode-like forms of "Into her Lying Down Head" and "Unluckily for a Death"; the revived medieval patterns of "Vision and Prayer"; the invented stanza of "A Winter's Tale"; and the relatively simple shapes of "The Hunchback in the Park" and "In my Craft or Sullen Art." As a demonstration of the poet's craft they are almost unique, and Thomas himself suggests the importance of his skill when he places "craft" before "art":
In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stage
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.
And surely there cannot be a more complete statement of the poet's calling than that, nor a more complete refutation of any possibility of Thomas' lack of utter seriousness as an artist. Here he even tells us that he writes now for an audience, even though such people may not be aware of his existence. The young poet who sang himself only is certainly gone.
There are however two poems that are personal, not from the absorbed, fascinated examination of self that had characterized the young poet, but poems filled with a piercing melancholy because time has taken away the innocence of childhood. They are "Poem in October" and "Fern Hill."
These famous poems have much in common. Their structure is similar; the verse stanza in each is complex, formal, and invented by Thomas. The difficulty of such forms must have been most challenging, yet Thomas succeeded in making them lyrical, musical, their intricacy and complexity never obtrusive but necessary to the unity of the poetry. To read them aloud is almost to have to sing them. "Poem in October" has seven stanzas, each of ten lines. The lines are syllabic; that is, Thomas, as he had been doing for some time, did not write them in regular rhythmic patterns but adopted the method of counting the syllables, so that the first line in every stanza has nine syllables, the second line twelve syllables, the third nine the fourth three, and so on. The rhyme scheme is both unusual and far from obvious. Thomas is using a convention that can be seen in other poems of this period, in "There was a Saviour," for example. He rhymes the vowels only · in our example he rhymes "saviour" with "radium." In "Poem in October" the rhymes are not quite as easily recognized yet they are there and tactfully hold together the verse stanzas despite the variety of line lengths and the strength and dance of the rhythms. We can see that "heaven" in line 1 rhymes with "heron" in line three "beckon" in line 5 and "second" in line 9. Similarly "wood," "rook," and "foot" share the same quality of vowel sound as do "shore" and "forth." One can easily identify this technique in the other stanzas.
The poem is one of that series of October poems in which Thomas celebrates his birthday; others have already been noted. Here he is not so much celebratory as apprehensive, looking back from the anniversary of his "thirtieth year to heaven" to earlier birthdays, those of his innocence when he
. . . saw in the turning so clearly a child's
Forgotten mornings when he walked with his mother
Through the parables
Of sun light
And the legends of the green chapels
What he sees is "the true joy of the long dead child" who was himself. His final lines express the hope that his "hearts truth" may "Still be sung / On this high hill / In a years turning."
The poem is unashamedly nostalgic, something that has caused some critics to minimize its importance; yet it is also beautiful and perfectly written. It is possible that Thomas idealizes the innocence of childhood, creating a brief moment of visionary happiness in which "a boy . . . whispered the truth of his joy / To the trees and the stones and the fish in the tide." But this is a startling achievement, and he has offered us the vision in highly sophisticated verse, from an adult point of view, and in the hope that he can retain such perfection of truth in the future. Imperfect though his life may have been, his aim is both the perfection of his art and, through it, a vision of perfection.
"Fern Hill" seems to me an even better poem. "Poem in October" includes merely a glimpse of the child's heaven; here he makes heaven as the boy knew it palpable and visible for us. Like the children in Blake's Songs of Innocence, the child Dylan on his aunt's farm, in a country world flawless and shining and without enemies, plays in ignorance that he is a prisoner of time:
. . . nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning, so few and such morning songs,
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace
The poem is much more than a paean of regret for times past and lost. Sensuous, opulent in language, rich in imagery and music, it paradoxically mourns the passing of an innocent vision that has made a heaven from a poor hill farm in rough country, something possible only for a child who loves the place, and even while mourning its passing re-creates that very heaven, its brilliance of color, the music of its smoke, its magical horses and foxes. Thomas knows that he has made Eden once again: "So it must have been after the birth of the simple light / In the first spinning place." To lose such a condition, and to know one has lost it, is an appalling plight. It was Thomas' strength and his fate that he never lost such knowledge, that he kept the child's vision and the man's knowledge. His poem possesses both. He has made both his innocence and his sense of loss clear for all of us as long as his language remains.
There are not many poems after this. Whatever the reasons, Thomas wrote few poems in the last years of his life. He includes in his Collected Poems only six more poems, if we count the prologue written specially for that volume. Among them are two that few of his admirers would wish to be without, "Poem on His Birthday" and "Over Sir John's Hill." Both reflect the landscape about his house on the shore · "his house on stilts" · at Laugharne; both are calmer more resigned. It is tempting to see in them some foreknowledge of the poet's death:
And freely he goes lost
In the unknown famous light of great
And fabulous dear God.
("Poem on His Birthday" 46-48)
and to suggest that his frequent references to God mean that he has made his peace and no longer fears time, that he possesses some consolation. But it seems to me that these are probably the more mature manifestations of his old obsessions: death, religion, the inevitability of time. If he had some peace, it was as he says in his "Authors Prologue," a poor peace.
In my seashaken house
On a breakneck of rocks . . .
At poor peace I sing
To you strangers. . . .
His "true joy" remains what it always was, that his "ark sings in the sun."
Although poems were few in his later years, he was not idle. Apart from his reading tours and his broadcasts, he continued to write prose, and he was a superb prose writer. His letters are joyous documents his telegrams even. Having left his shirts in Dr. Jones's house, he sent his friend a wire that read, "For Pete's sake send my shirts, Love Pete" (My Friend Dylan Thomas p. 114). Prose was the medium in which he found an outlet for his narrative skill, for his humor, for all the sides of his life for which poetry · and it will be remembered that for him poetry was used only for the most serious and profound and mysterious work · was not possible. He had a great deal to offer. He was a born teller of tales.
From the very beginning of his career he knew this. He thought of himself as a writer of poems and stories. This is how he describes himself in a letter, written when he was nineteen, to Glyn Jones: "You ask me to tell you about myself, but my life is so uneventful it is not worth recording. I am a writer of poems and stories" (The Dragon Has Two Tongues p. 172). His life did not remain uneventful, but he was to remain a writer of poems and stories. He had contributed stories as well as poems to The Swansea Grammar School Magazine. In an appendix to The Collected Stories (1984), the editor, Walford Davies, includes three of these schoolboy pieces, the earliest having appeared in the school magazine in April 1931. There is plenty of evidence that Thomas considered poems and stories equal products of his talent, drawing no distinctions between them, knowing they came from the same source. The magazine he hoped to found and edit, on which he spent some time in the effort to promote it, was to be called Prose and Verse. It never appeared, but it is noteworthy that he allows prose to appear first in its title. And Glyn Jones and other friends have told us that when they visited him at his parent's house he was as eager to read his stories to them as he was his poems. They were, indeed very like his poems.
If we read "The Tree," or any of the stories that eventually appeared in The Map of Love, it is evident that they possess the same obsessive imagery, are written in the same heightened rhythms, deal very largely with the same interior world as the poems of that period. It is true that, since they are narratives, Thomas had to pay more attention to the observable world; but it remains largely a place of dreams, the details not very clearly the result of observation; nor do the events of the story necessarily proceed from each other with the force of the inevitable. But they have the same sensuous power as the poems, and their very texture is exciting to discover.
Rising from the house that faced the Jarvis hills in the
long distance, there was a tower for the day-birds to
build in and for the owls to fly around at night. From the
village the light in the tower window shone like a glow-worm
through the panes; but the room under the sparrows'
nests were rarely lit.
("The Tree", Collected Stores, p. 5)
When Thomas first went to London in November 1934, he had already published stories in the magazines. Arriving in Soho, he found his poetry and prose equally admired. In "Where Tawe Flows," one of the autobiographical stories yet to be written and which would be included in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, Thomas remembers this period: "Young Mr Thomas was at the moment without employment, but it was understood that he would soon be leaving for London to make a career in Chelsea as a free-lance journalist; he was penniless and hoped in a vague way to live on women."
But all this was in the future. And if the appearance of his first book of poems in December 1934 meant there was to be a comparative neglect of his prose Thomas was not aware of it. He continued to write his stories to sent them to editors. From the room off the Fulham Road he shared with his Swansea friend Fred Janes and where "for yards around" there was "nothing but poems, poems, poems, butter, eggs, mashed potatoes, mashed among my stories and Janes's canvases," he wrote with pride of the stories that had been accepted by various periodicals. He was a teller of stories all his life.
They were not, however, collected into a volume as the poems were and when Eighteen Poems was followed by Twenty-five Poems, Thomas was firmly established as a poet not a prose writer. He tried to persuade Richard Church, his editor at Dents to publish a collection of stories, but Church refused judging the work obscene. This opinion was shared by the printers, who refused to set the stories for another publisher a little later. It was not until 1939 that a representative sample of Thomas stories appeared in book form, when seven were included with the poems of The Map of Love. In December of the same year The World I Breathe, a collection of the poems of the first three books and three stories in addition to those in The Map of Love was published in America. At last the early prose, or those stories which were considered suitable, had found a home.
Thomas, too, had found a home. He and Caitlin had moved into a small house in Laugharne, the little seaside town in Carmarthenshire that was to be his home for much of the rest of his life. They were very poor, and Thomas set about earning money by writing a different kind of story altogether. Glyn Jones recalls that in the summer of 1938 he mentioned to Caitlin Thomas that he was engaged on a volume of stories about childhood: "She seemed very surprised and told me that Dylan had already started doing the same thing. His were the autobiographical stories which in 1940 appeared as Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog" (The Dragon Has Two Tongues p. 191). The new stories were direct uncomplicated evocations of the Swansea in which Thomas had grown up. They were not at all dreamlike; instead they revealed a most observant eye for the oddities of behavior, and an ear for the eccentricities within patterns of ordinary speech, that allowed Thomas to create credible and individual characters for the men, women, and children who people his stories. And while Thomas had written these stories · there were ten of them · at great speed and in the hope that they would be more commercial than his previous narratives, they also proved that this was the medium he could use for all his skills as a commentator on the world in which he lived, for his sense of fun, for his understanding of the small inevitable tragedies that fill ordinary lives.
Just as he had learned his trade as a poet from his reading of the great poets, particularly those of the nineteenth century, so he had served his willing time with the short-story writers. Among other authors, he knew the work of D. H. Lawrence, H. E. Bates, and Liam O'Flaherty; he had read James Joyce's Dubliners; he was an admiring student of Charles Dickens. Among Welsh writers he had a particular interest in the work of Caradoc Evans, whose stories had already used a Welsh background with success. With Glyn Jones he had visited the older man in 1936. They had driven north to Aberystwyth, the two young men wearing each other's hats, to speak to "the great Caradoc Evans," as Thomas called him in a story included in The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog. There is no direct influence of the Cardiganshire writer's work on Thomas, but he is probably important as someone whose example may have inspired the poet to write about Swansea and its people.
Again Thomas had been living unprotected in the world for a number of years, his eye and his wits sharpened, his naturally alert senses alive to what was about him. He had already abandoned in many ways the interior universe of his early work and, as we have seen in his poems, was ready to create a world more related to that in which he lived. Above all, he had become a great storyteller, famous (as he almost said himself) about the bars. He realized that there were great areas of his ability and his personality that he would never use for lyric poetry, but he could use them in his stories. From this time on, the difference between his poetry and prose was marked.
Thomas believed that poetry is a solemn art, and he was a serious poet, dedicating his life to the service of his muse, restricting his themes to a few great and inevitable subjects. There is a great deal of word-play in his verse, of ecstatic delight in the combination of opulent sounds and highly exact, unusual meaning, in the presence in his lines of serious puns, but there is no room for laughter. Yet he was also a brilliantly funny man, and it is in the ten stories we are considering that a comic Thomas made his appearance. The stories, united in that they have as a central character "young Mr Thomas," move from the innocence of the first three stories ("The Peaches," "A Visit to Grandpa's," "Patricia, Edith, and Arnold"), through two splendid stories of his school days (in one of which, "The Fight," we meet Dr. Daniel Jones as a boy), to a more complex and jaunty person, Thomas as a cub reporter, his cigarette worn in admiring imitation of the old reporter he accompanies through the public houses of the town ("Old Garbo"). We see him as a haunter of deserted winter beaches as a young man about to leave the town for London. It is with this portrait of himself that Thomas takes as decisive a leave of his younger self as he did with his sale of his notebooks.
The stories are full of wonderful talk, something in which Thomas himself excelled. We hear and recognize the characters as they preach from the back of a cart:
I sat on the hay and stared at Gwilym preaching, and
heard his voice rise and crack and sink to a whisper and
break into singing and Welsh and ring triumphantly and
be wilt and meek. The sun through a hole shone on his
praying shoulders and he said: "O God, Thou art everywhere
all the time, in the dew of the morning, in the frost
of the evening, in the field and the town, in the preacher
and the sinner, in the sparrow and the big buzzard."
("The Peaches," Collected Stories, pp. 128)
They are irreverent to school teachers, joke and wisecrack their way to the shore, stare in sadness and despair at the sea. A great mimic Thomas realized his exceptional narrative skills in these stories: his sense of place, his fine ear for speech, and his love, appreciative and unjudging, for the people he creates. These are the qualities that make him a fine writer as distinct from a fine poet, and they are the qualities that helped to make him generally popular. Had he not written his stories he would have been a lesser, and a less interesting figure.
Portrait of the Artists a Young Dog is a title that pays clear tribute to Joyce, but it is not Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man that one is reminded of when reading Thomas book. Rather the stories are clearly of the same type as those in Joyce's Dubliners, and Thomas is surely telling us this. Both books are set in provincial cities, both relate the important small events in unimportant lives and make them important. Stylistically, however, they are very different. Thomas himself denied that there was any Joycean influence on his work:
I cannot say that I have been "influenced" by Joyce,
whom I enormously admire and whose "Ulysses," and
earlier stories, I have read a great deal. . . . As you know,
the name given to innumerable portrait paintings by
their artists is, "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man."
. . . I myself made a bit of doggish fun at the painting
title and intended no possible reference to Joyce.
("Notes on the Art of Poetry," Texas Quarterly, Winter 1961)
Be that as it may, it is certain that "the bit of doggish fun" is his own. Although Thomas' title is said to have been the suggestion of Richard Hughes, the distinguished author of A High Wind in Jamaica and other fine work, Thomas had almost used it years before when he wrote, in 1933, to his friend Trevor Hughes. In that letter Dylan had advised his friend to "dive into the sea of yourself like a young dog." In his own stories, Thomas had taken his own advice and dived into the sea of his childhood and youth.
Portrait was published in 1940 the last of Thomas books to appear until the war was over. He was · after a short period in which things looked very uncertain · working fairly regularly as a writer of film scripts and a broadcaster his own writing pushed aside somewhat. He was, however, working intermittently on a novel, and was sending parts of it to London publishers, without success. This was the comic novel, just as autobiographical as his stories, eventually called Adventures in the Skin Trade. It was never completed and was published posthumously in 1955.
Despite its late public appearance · an extract had been published in Folios of New Writing in 1941 · most of it seems to have been written in the summer of 1941. Its hero, Samuel Bennet, seems to be none other than the young Mr. Thomas of the Portrait and he continues where that young man left off, departing from Swansea by the very train that Thomas himself left home in "to make a career in Chelsea as a free-lance journalist." Vernon Watkins, who wrote an interesting foreword to the novel when it eventually appeared, thought that it remained unfinished because of the impact of the war, particularly of the air raids on London, on what he called Thomas' "essentially tragic vision," but he also thought that Thomas mistrusted his own facility. Certainly Thomas was able to write this sort of prose very quickly, but I feel that there may well have been other reasons for the failure to continue the adventures of Samuel Bennet. The novel is loosely structured as picaresque and moves forward in an arbitrary and rather casual manner. Thomas, that deliberate artist, must have felt very dubious about it; it is impossible to see, for example, any serious reason for it to end anywhere, or indeed to continue. It is funny and inventive, with passages of brilliant slapstick, but Thomas may simply have come to the end of what he had to say. He was, moreover, not a natural novelist; he was a natural short-story writer; the novel was too long for him. The very nature of his talent, selective, concentrated, meant that he was not at home with the novel, a form into which one can pack almost anything. And while Thomas recognized his kinship with Dickens when he called Adventures in the Skin Trade "a mixture of Oliver Twist, Little Dorrit, Kafka, Beachcomber, and 3-adjectives-a-penny belly-churning Thomas," it was Dickens' energy and humor that he was acknowledging, the furious poetry. Thomas never actually put his novel away entirely. As late as 1953 the year of his death he was still suggesting that he might continue it.
For all practical purposes the novel was abandoned when Thomas went to London to work, and the demands on his time from then on resulted in there remaining only seven short narratives from this last period of his life, and six of the seven were written for broadcasting. It is ironic that his great popular reputation may rest on one or two of these and on Under Milk Wood, his "play for voices." It is also understandable, for they are entirely memorable pieces, bringing us the whole man, his warmth, the wide range of his humor, his pathos, his brilliant images, his incredible memory for the days and places of his childhood, his moving sadness for what had gone forever, and even enough magic to remind us that he was a great poet.
The first of these late pieces "Quite Early One Morning," reads like a first draft of Under Milk Wood, for it deals with the dreams of a small sleeping town in the early morning, where Captain Tiny Evans, a trial Captain Cat, sleeps and dreams of "a rainbow of flying fishes." But it is "A Child's Christmas in Wales" that everyone knows. All over the world in the days immediately before Christmas we can hear from schools and houses the poets voice rebuilding for us an impossible and utterly satisfying Christmas. Compounded of two similar stories, "Memories of Christmas" and "Conversation about Christmas," this was first published in Harper's Bazaar as "A Child's Memories of Christmas in Wales" in December 1950. It is a rich confection as rich with gifts as any Christmas can hope to be, its snow untouched, its parties warm and musical packed as a pudding with fruit and brandy. Dickens is not far away, but there are unforgettable Thomas moments too, like that when "with dog-disturbing whistle and sugar fags I would scour the swatched town for the news of the little world and find always a dead bird by the white Post Office or the deserted swings; perhaps a robin, all but one of his fires out" (The Collected Stories p. 300).
"The Followers" is a ghost story of the most cunning and surprising sort. On a wet night, so beautifully realized that we must believe it, two bored young men, almost penniless, but bravely keeping up appearances, one with a gallant cap, the other with a rolled umbrella and an attempted mustache, follow an ordinary girl home through the soaked, domestic streets. In such a world, so solid and convincing, ghosts should not happen, and it is all the more credible and terrifying when they do · and also funny. Thomas has learned how to select and create his detail; he has looked hard and lovingly at his world.
"The Followers" is the only one of these late narratives not written for broadcasting and perhaps the only one that does not have the sound of Thomas' unique voice in it as a result. Certainly the uproarious events of "A Story" were made for him alone to tell, and the very structure of the sentences as they lie on the page seems to carry with them the mans own telling:
But there he was, always, a steaming hulk of an uncle,
his braces straining like hawsers. . . . As he ate the house
grew smaller; he billowed out over the furniture, the
loud check meadow of his waistcoat littered, as though
after a picnic, with cigarette ends, peelings, cabbage
stalks, birds' bones, gravy.
(The Collected Stories, p. 337)
Reading again these short narratives, as personal as any he wrote as a young man, it is impossible not to regret the loss of the work he might have written and to wonder in what direction Thomas might have moved. We have not considered yet Under Milk Wood, the play for radio that was successively broadcast, adapted for the stage and filmed. This might suggest that Thomas would have turned more and more to the stag for his work. His death put an end to the projected opera libretto he was to write for Igor Stravinsky, but we know he was enormously excited by the prospect. Under Milk Wood was first performed, in almost its final form, in New York only weeks before Thomas died there. He was working on it even during its performance, sending altered and additional lines to the actors as they read, and Thomas continued to tinker with it almost to his death.
From: Norris, Leslie. "Dylan (Marlais) Thomas." British Writers, Supplement 1, edited by Ian Scott-Kilvert, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1987.